Life Is Not a Spectacle Or a Feast; It Is a Predicament

George Santayana? W. H. Auden? Cyril Connolly? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Fortunate people experience life as an overflowing banquet coupled with a remarkable series of sights and sounds. But most people have more complicated ordeals. Here are two pertinent expressions:

Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.
Life is neither a feast nor a spectacle but a predicament.

Prominent philosopher George Santayana has received credit for this saying, but I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to find an exact match within the writings and speeches of George Santayana. The closest match located by QI occurred within a lecture titled “The Unknowable” which Santayana delivered at Oxford University in 1923. Boldface added to excerpts: 1

Poets and philosophers sometimes talk as if life were an entertainment, a feast of ordered sensations; but the poets, if not the philosophers, know too well in their hearts that life is no such thing; it is a predicament. We are caught in it; it is something compulsory, urgent, dangerous, and tempting. We are surrounded by enormous, mysterious, only half-friendly forces.

The passage above did communicate a similar idea. The keywords “feast” and “predicament” were present, and the word “entertainment” provided a near match for “spectacle”.

A citation given further below shows that Santayana received credit for the saying under examination by 1932. QI offers two different hypotheses:

(1) The saying was constructed as a paraphrase of the statement above by an unknown person. The saying was subsequently reassigned directly to Santayana. (This is a known misquotation mechanism.)

(2) Santayana crafted the saying as a concise reformulation of his own idea, but a precise citation has not been uncovered. In fact, a direct citation in the works of Santayana may not exist if he only spoke it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Life Is Not a Spectacle Or a Feast; It Is a Predicament


  1. 1923, The Unknowable: The Herbert Spencer Lecture, Delivered at Oxford, 24 October 1923 by George Santayana (Formerly Professor of Philosophy in Harvard University), Quote Page 10, Oxford University Press, London. (Google Books Full View) link

The Difficult We Do Immediately. The Impossible Takes a Little Longer

Charles Alexandre de Calonne? Lady Aberdeen? George Santayana? Fridtjof Nansen? Nicolas Beaujon? Baron de Breteuil? Mrs. William Tilton?

Dear Quote Investigator: There exists a family of entertaining sayings that cheerfully displays inordinate confidence:

1) If the thing be possible, it is already done; if impossible, it shall be done.

2) If it is simply difficult, it is done. If it is impossible, it shall be done.

3) The difference between the difficult and the impossible is that the impossible takes a little longer time.

4) The difficult is that which can be done immediately, the impossible that which takes a little longer.

5) The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.

These phrases have been linked to the French statesman Charles Alexandre de Calonne, the American essayist George Santayana, and the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in a 1794 collection of tales titled “Domestic Anecdotes of the French Nation”. The saying was ascribed to Charles Alexandre de Calonne who was the controversial Finance Minister for King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette. Before the excerpt below had been published, the French Revolution had swept the King and Queen from power, and both had died on the guillotine in 1793. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

When the queen asked Calonne for money, he more than once made use of this singular expression: If it is possible, madam, the affair is done; if it is impossible, it shall be done! Appropriate language for a French petit-maitre addressing his mistress, but not for a financier in whose hands was reposed the prosperity of an oppressed people!

The expression has been circulating and evolving for more than two hundred years. The popular novelist Anthony Trollope included an instance in his 1874 book “Phineas Redux” ascribing the words to a French Minister. Fridtjof Nansen spoke a version of the saying when he was a delegate to the League of Nations in 1925.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Difficult We Do Immediately. The Impossible Takes a Little Longer


  1. 1794, Domestic Anecdotes of the French Nation During the Last Thirty Years: Indicative of the French Revolution by Isaac Disraeli, Chapter: The Queen, Start Page 376, Quote Page 404, Printed for C. and G. Kearsley, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link